- Isaiah 25:6-9
- Psalm 114
- Acts 10:34-43
- John 20:1-18
Every summer there are hundreds of traffic accidents involving cars and motorcycles where the car driver is technically at fault, and where the explanation is, “I honestly looked, but I just didn’t see him coming there.” The problem is that, when driving, we can automatically program our minds to be on the lookout for other cars and trucks, but fail to register something so small as a motorcycle in our peripheral vision as a potentially fast moving vehicle to watch out for. Many times drivers really just don’t see them coming before pulling out or turning in front of them.
How far does that same phenomenon of perception figure into the Easter story here? Let’s take a look and find out.
The Easter story in the Gospel of John is told from the perspectives of three runners. First Mary ran to Peter’s house, then Peter ran to the tomb, then John outran Peter. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn.
Mary of Magdala was one of at least three, probably four, Mary’s in Jesus’ life. First we have his mother Mary of course; then there was a Mary married to a fellow named Clopas, and then Mary Magdalene, as she is commonly called. Then there are different theories of how one of these Marys could have also been Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, or she could be Mary number 4. So when the Gospel of Matthew refers to Mary Magdalene, a.k.a. Mary of Magdala, going around with “the other Mary” it’s anyone’s guess which one he was talking about.
Luke introduces Mary Magdalene in chapter 8 of his gospel, identifying her as the one “from whom seven demons had come out.” This immediately follows on the story in the end of Luke 7 where a “sinful woman” –– a.k.a. a prostitute –– made a huge scene of pampering Jesus’ feet in the home of a Pharisee named Simon. There is a tradition of identifying Mary Magdalene as being this same “sinful woman,” and if Jesus had just removed seven demons from her that would explain why the woman in Luke 7 was so demonstrative of her affection for him right in front of his critic. It would also sort of go together with the sort of reaction that this Mary had to “the gardener” who turned out to be Jesus in our reading today. Yet all that being said, the evidence to establish such an identification is fairly thin and speculative.
What sort of effects were those demons having on her? Where did the money she was spending on Jesus come from? (Luke 8:3 tells us that this Mary was one of the women who “were helping to support [Jesus and his 12 disciples] out of their own means.) Could Jesus possibly have been, to some extent, “romantically involved” with this particular Mary? There is plenty of speculation about all of these questions to go around, but they are rather beside the point of our story today.
Whatever the case, this Mary, who we can just call Mary M, wanted to be the first to show respect to Jesus’ dead body –– the body of the man that she cared about so deeply, who had been her teacher, her deliverer and the focus of her purpose in life for the past year or two –– but before sunrise that Sunday morning she discovered that there was no dead body of Jesus to be found!
One significant detail in the way John tells the story is that Mary M never actually goes into the tomb. Why is that? The way Luke tells it, the whole collection of Marys that had been following Jesus around, with a few other women besides, had come to the tomb together, carrying their jugs full of embalming spices, and together they thoroughly investigated the empty tomb before going to tell the guys. Why does John have a different version? For that matter why wouldn’t Mary M go in? Her whole point in coming was to go and cover Jesus body with enough fragrant spices so that it wouldn’t start to wreak as it began to decompose. She was not shy or squeamish about performing this very intimate act on the corpse, so what would keep her from going in when she discovered the tomb was empty?
John never specifically states that Mary M came alone to the tomb, so the discrepancy with Luke’s telling is not impossible to work out here. One possibility is that with the other girls cramming themselves into the tiny burial chamber to check things out, Mary M just decided to take their word for it and rush off to tell the guys. Or maybe she was too shocked, or scared, or disoriented to think about any sort of forensic way about the situation. Whatever the case, as John tells it, Mary took off on the run to find the men so they could help her deal with the situation.
Maybe Mark (16:8) was right about the other girls in this case –– they were too scared to say anything about this to anyone –– but Mary M had to find some way of making sense of this whole business, talking about it with someone who also cared about the matter and who could help her believe that she wasn’t going crazy. How? She hadn’t figured that part out yet, but she instinctively believed that Peter was one of those she should talk to. So the first place she goes is Peter’s house, and as it happens she finds at least John, perhaps some of the other disciples, together with him there.
Peter was still trying to come to grips with the humiliation of having three times denied any connection Jesus, after he had so emphatically sworn that he was ready to die in Jesus’ defense. If anyone could relate to being confused and disoriented by the whole situation, the way Mary M was, it would be Peter. Again having a look over at Luke’s telling of the story for comparison, the other guys who happened to be there thought that maybe Mary was going crazy, but Peter had to see this for himself. So he immediately jumped up and started running for the tomb. As soon as he got there he clambered down in and saw the grave clothes lying there, with the head wrapping and body wrapping cloths lying separately from each other. This was significant for Peter: if someone had stolen the body they certainly wouldn’t have bothered to undress it first! And even if they would have unwound the cloth from around the body before stealing it, they certainly wouldn’t have carefully wound the cloth back up and put it in its proper place. Something incredible was going on here!
Peter was the first man to go into the tomb after the resurrection, but he wasn’t the first one to arrive there. That would have been John. Peter had two things going against him on the run: first, he had never actually been to the tomb before, so he only had Mary M’s description of the location to go on; and second, he was getting a bit old for these sorts of sprints across town. John had the advantage in both of these regards: John’s gospel (19:26-27) tells of how, during the crucifixion, Jesus had given him the task of looking after Mary, Jesus’ mother; and he says that he took that responsibility seriously, effective immediately. Thus John would have stuck with the elder Mary for the rest of that day, and when that Mary saw where Jesus was buried (Luke 23:55), John would have seen as well. Beyond that, John was also significantly younger than Peter, and so he was just in far better running condition.
In the excitement of the moment Peter hadn’t waited for John, and thus John felt no obligation to wait for Peter on the way. He blew past him and went straight to the tomb. But once John got there he had a bit of a funny feeling about climbing in. He just squatted in the doorway and tried to get his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. While he was squatting there Peter arrived –– doubtless all out of breath –– shoved he way past and scrambled down in. After that the younger fellow figured the proper thing to do would be to follow him on in.
In telling this story decades after the fact, John clearly remembered his first thought there inside the tomb that morning: “OK, Mary M is not going crazy –– the body is gone. That much I believe. But what in God’s name is going on here?!” He didn’t get it yet, but he clearly recognized that there was genuinely something going on that he couldn’t naturally explain. All that was left for him to do after that was to go home and think about it. And so he did.
Meanwhile Mary M. showed up again. She hadn’t seriously tried to keep up with either of the guys on their runs, nor did she want to join them in exploring the empty tomb, but when they took off in that direction she wasn’t far behind. So when they finished their investigations and headed for home she was already outside waiting. They may or may not have had much to say to each other, but afterwards Mary M decided to stay there for a while. It says something about the extent of her disorientation at that point that seeing angels didn’t make her stop and think. She bent down to look into the tomb the same way John had at first –– crouching in the doorway –– sobbing her eyes out and not being able to see much through her tears, when she caught sight of two angels sitting there on the stone slab. This is where John’s telling starts to strike me as a bit strange: how could she see two angels sitting there, which obviously weren’t visible there when the men were in the tomb just a moment ago, and still be thinking of grave robbery? I mean, wouldn’t all of the evidence against such an interpretation of the facts be starting to dawn on her at this point? The idea that, “They have taken away my Lord” (whoever “they” might be in this case) would seem rather far-fetched at this point, wouldn’t it? Not that Peter and John were all that much brighter: they only got as far as believing that Mary M wasn’t hallucinating or making all this up, but they still hadn’t figured out what was going on.
Then Jesus shows up, and whenever Jesus shows up that changes everything.
Now the clothes that he was buried in are still there in the tomb, but obviously he didn’t show up naked, so what was he wearing? Did the angels bring down some heavenly robes for him to put on? Did he borrow some overalls from a nearby maintenance shed? This is one of those trivial little details that John doesn’t offer us much help with. He only says that somehow Mary managed to mistake Jesus for a gardener. Then Jesus asks her two important questions. First he repeated the angels’ question: “Why are you weeping?” and then the deceptively profound inquiry, “Who are you looking for?”
Mary had already told the angels why she was crying, but that answer didn’t really make sense. She needed to reconsider it. Jesus had a habit of re-asking questions when deeper consideration was needed. And to guide her in that reconsideration he tossed in the second question. Mary apparently misunderstood the implication of that second question. She took it as a kind offer of help in looking for what she was missing; sort of like if a little girl were crying because of a runaway puppy and a stranger would come to help and ask, “What does your dog look like?” She jumped on what she took to be an implied offer of help in finding the body, entirely missing the point of stopping to ask herself, “Who am I really looking for here?”
Who was she looking for? Well, obviously, she was looking for Jesus. And what was Jesus like? How would she be able to tell if she found him? That seemed like a silly thing to ask! She had been his most dedicated female follower for years; for what seemed to her like most of her life! Of course she would immediately know him if she saw him!
Except she didn’t.
The problem was that she was looking for a dead body. Just like the car driver who can’t see the motorcycle coming, she just couldn’t see him, because her mind just wasn’t at all attuned to the possibility that he could be a living person again. He was standing right in front of her and she didn’t see anything more than an anonymous guy in what she took to be a gardener’s outfit. But when he spoke her name all of a sudden she realized that she had the wrong end of the stick.
This gave her the real Easter message to bring back to the disciples. It wasn’t just that the body was gone and there wasn’t any good logical explanation; it was that they had been looking for Jesus in a completely wrong way.
All of these men and women had been walking with Jesus, eating with Jesus, sleeping in the same room with Jesus, going around the country telling people to follow Jesus… and yet they still didn’t really understand who Jesus was, what he came to do or how people should recognize him. They really didn’t understand who they were looking for. They hadn’t stopped to consider that question thoroughly enough to understand that Jesus was not a messiah come to restore the political autonomy of the nation of Israel, but the great Messiah –– the Christ –– come to restore mankind’s free fellowship with God and with each other. They needed something that philosophers would later come to call a major paradigm shift. Eventually John at least got what she was saying: one of the running motifs in the Gospel of John is what he says here in verse 9: “For as yet they did not understand…” It might have been years later though when he finally did understand.
This is what Paul means when he says in 2 Corinthians 5:16: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” We can see the tomb as representing “a worldly point of view” regarding Jesus. Peter was the one who, on Easter morning, most thoroughly went into this viewpoint and recognized its limits. John was more hesitant in this regard, not being entirely comfortable with the idea of stepping into the tomb, but not yet seeing an alternative perspective. Mary, on the other hand, had been more ready than anyone to go into the tomb that morning before sunrise, but the new situation represented by the moved stone and the emptiness of the tomb completely changed her mind. She was in a state of total confusion, bordering on hysteria, but she knew that the answer wasn’t in the tomb. But then Jesus came and with one word, saying her name, he showed her that she hadn’t properly understood who and what she should be looking for. From there she was able to go and tell the others who and what they too should be looking for.
This gave them a new, broader way of looking at… well, everything. They began to explore the scriptures to see how Jesus had fulfilled them. They began to realize that his death wasn’t a defeat for their cause after all, but that their cause needed to be redefined in a way that conformed to his death, and resurrection. And above all, this showed them that Jesus message and saving work was available to everyone, not just to those who conformed to their religious preconceptions.
Many times we too, even as devoted followers of Jesus, get stuck in a place of not finding him because we are looking for the wrong sort of Jesus. Maybe we are looking for a Jesus who will establish our political tribe as the winners of whatever conflict we feel we deserve to win. Or maybe we are looking for a magical talisman of sorts to fulfill all of our wishes for comfort and security in this life. In these and so many other ways we may be looking for the wrong sort of Jesus; we may be “searching for the living among the dead” (Luke 24:5).
As we consider the Easter message today, let’s try to avoid letting our preconceptions of what we are looking for blind us to what God is trying to show us. Let’s try to avoid not recognizing things like oncoming motorcycles as what they are just because they don’t fit together with our preconceptions of what we should be looking out for. In the same way let’s try to avoid mistaking Jesus for just some random gardener or maintenance worker. Each of us, in different ways, needs to overcome our own blindness as to who Jesus is that are caused by what we were expecting him to be. Again, in this regard, we need to look at Matthew 25:40 & 45: “whatever you did (not do) for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did (not do) for me.”
Let us pray.